There’s a certain inevitability about autonomous drive tech and the eventual arrival of robotaxis. It sounds like the logical destination for the – albeit complex – technological journey. Getting there, though, is not so easy. The limited pilot testing so far hasn’t exactly gone completely to plan. General Motors’ Cruise unit is on a long road back to reclaiming its driverless car permit in California after an incident in October 2023 involved a Cruise vehicle hitting a pedestrian. A Waymo robotaxi recently hit a difficult to see cyclist in San Francisco. Cue a media fuss.

There’s a kind of paradox at work here. Human error accounts for most road traffic accidents. Automated systems are able to almost wipe those accident scenarios out completely, in theory, potentially resulting in far fewer human casualties. But the key word there is almost. We’re setting a very high benchmark indeed for Level 4 and 5 autonomous vehicles. You can imagine the media coverage if an automated system results in a robotaxi crashing into pedestrians at a bus stop.

If you want a serious moral dilemma to wrestle with, there’s always the ethics of their programming. Imagine a scenario where the split-second choice for the vehicle is to hit a pedestrian (or pedestrians minding their own business at our bus stop) or crash into a wall at high speed, potentially seriously harming the vehicle passengers? Should AVs be programmed to avoid hitting animals? If so, which ones and what conditions apply? No easy answers, of course. But in the meantime, humans will go on making more errors of judgement – with tragic consequences – behind the wheel, in our chaotic and imperfect world.

From an industry perspective, no-one wants to be late to the driverless party and there’s the real possibility of a major first-mover advantage when someone gets over the line.

Another question to ponder: will a big breakthrough come from a robotaxi tech specialist or an automotive OEM that has managed to morph a heavily ADAS equipped vehicle into an almost fully driverless one (albeit still fitted with a steering wheel and pedals)? 

Did carmakers underestimate the difficulty of autonomous driving?

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Explainer: when will we have driverless vehicles?

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